Saturday, June 18, 2016

It's good to talk

It’s good to talk!

No one knew that better than John Lewis who for so many years served this church in the service of his Master.  John knew how important that was because he was a good listener.  That’s why he was appointed our Senior Deacon.  That’s what drew him to the Samaritans.  It was his gift as a listener that drew the Samaritans locally to appoint him their Director and the Samaritans nationally to make him a Vice President.

They both loved literature and specially loved Shakespeare.  They went regularly to Stratford.  Ten years ago in March they saw their last play together: it was King Lear.  Shortly after, Hilary’s illness worsened and she knew it would not long before her passing.  She it was who decided that she wanted us all to share the very last six lines of King Lear at the thanksgiving service after her death.

It’s good to talk about death.  And good to talk about the death we know we will face at some point.  What a morbid topic for the weekend of the Queen's Birthday celebrations when we are having our very own Street Party with neighbours from the Terrace!  For us as Christians, it is not a morbid topic.  It’s a topic we can talk about because we know ‘death has been swallowed up in victory; death has lost its sting.’  It has always been one of the loveliest parts of my ministry when people have talked with me about their own death and what they would like to happen.  It has been my privilege subsequently to sit with their close ones and very occasionally with the medical professionals sharing their thoughts as I recall them and often as they have written them down.  And all done in the ‘sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ’.

It's good to talk in anticipation of our own death.

And it’s good to talk following the death of a loved one.  Maybe that’s what Hilary knew as she anticipated the sadness we would all be feeling at that service of thanksgiving.

The last six lines of King Lear are made of three couplets.  The middle couplet sums up all that meant so much to John Lewis as a good listener and a good ‘Samaritan’.

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

Our society is facing a major crisis in mental health among young people.  In response to that crisis the decision was taken to appoint a mental health champion for schools.  When I googled ‘mental health champion’ two consecutive headlines caught my eye. 

The first read, “First ever mental health champion for schools unveiled” 30 Aug 2015 - The Department for Education's ( DfE ) first ever mental health champion for schools will help to raise awareness and reduce the stigma around ... young people’s mental health”

The second read, “Mental health champion for UK schools axed after criticising ... 4 May 2016 - The government has dropped its mental health champion for schools after she publicly criticised current education policies, in particular the testing regime which she claims is detrimental to children’s mental health.”

John was a teacher, as was his wife Hilary.  John taught French.  Hilary taught English.  As fellow teachers and pupils at his thanksgiving testified, and as former pupils testified too, they were both the kind of teachers who inspired as they excelled in their teaching.  Natasha Devon has some very disturbing things to say about what’s happening in our schools to our children, and for that matter to our teachers.  The relentless grind of children having to face questions that require either a yes or a no so that their teachers can spend hours inputting the data they collect into their computers for other teachers to spend hours analyzing that data is damaging to the mental health of the children and of the teachers concerned.

In one of the reports that accompanied that news someone asked what mental health is.  In their reflections they suggested that mental health is about what’s going on inside us in the gap between what we know we feel inside and what we let other people see.  The point is that all of us have issues with our mental health at one time or another.  When the gap between what we feel and what we let others see is towards the small end, that’s when our mental health is reasonably well.  As that gap increases so that’s an indication that our mental health is not so good. 

That’s the kind of moment when it’s good to talk.  And it’s good to find someone who will be able to listen.  That’s the tragedy we see unfolding in our schools.  Because of all that data inputting and intensive marking and because of the enormous reduction in mental health services for children and young people there are fewer and fewer people with the time to listen.

At the same time social media exposes young people to those who are not ‘good’ listeners, whose often inappropriate comments exacerbate the disturbed feelings of our children and young people in a way that no previous generation has experienced before.

That’s what makes it so important to heed the wisdom in those two lines at the very end of King Lear.

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say

It’s what prompted the founding of the Samaritans.  I will never forget the day one of the leading Samaritans in Cheltenham spoke at Highbury.  Because of John’s involvement one of the monthly charities we support is the local branch of Samaritans here in Cheltenham.  That Sunday John had arranged for one of their branch to speak in the service.  He spoke before the sermon.  Had he spoken afterwards, he told me later, he would have had much more to say!

I was preaching on a passage that appears in Matthew 9:18-26, Mark 5:21-43 and Luke 8:40-56.  Jairus, a leader of the synagogue asked Jesus to come to his house as his only daughter, “about twelve years old” was dying.  As he went to see her Jesus was stopped by a woman who had suffered from severe bleeding “for twelve years”.

In my sermon I recalled how I have a shelf of commentaries on the New Testament practically all written by men.  None of them made the connection obvious to a woman.  It is only in the last thirty years that commentaries have been published in any numbers by women .  They do make the connection.

I am an only child who went to a boys secondary school who had only read commentaries by men.  And so I had not until just before then made the connection.  The onset of menstruation is around the age of 12.  Is it possible the girl’s illness had something to do with what was happening to her body?

I don’t recall how I developed that theme in my preaching.  What I do remember is the comment made by John’s fellow-Samaritan after the service.  If only he had spoken after my sermon!  That’s why the Samaritan movement started.

Chad Varah was a young curate in London when he was asked to do a tragic funeral for a twelve year old girl who had taken her own life.  When he spoke with the family in readiness for the service he learned that the girl had just started her periods and was terrified at what was happening to her.  The norms of her society and the culture of her family was such that she felt she could not talk.

Those very same norms in society and that very same culture in her family meant that no one was prepared to listen.

The girl came to the conclusion that she had contracted an unbelievably painful and life-threatening illness that could not be cured and so she decided to end her own life.

Chad Varah vowed to do all he could to ensure that such a person would be able to talk and that someone would be there to listen.

So it was that he founded what has become an international organization, The Samaritans, who are always there to listen at any time of the day … so long as people are prepared to talk.

Later in this edition of Highbury News is the tribute I paid to John.   Who knows someone reading this may be prompted to offer themselves to serve as a Samaritan.  Someone else may be prompted to pick up the phone and ring the Samaritans.  Both would be paying John the finest tribute he would want to have.

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say

So much to pass on at Highbury

If you give a little love you can get a little love of your own

A blessing shared at Highbury

Now and the Future at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions

Darkness into Light